Photo essay: the people fighting kauri dieback

In a new exhibition, photographer Michelle Hyslop explores kauri dieback through the personal stories of the people close to the trees and their fight to save – and protect – the giants of the forest.

In December 2017 Te Kawerau ā Maki placed a rāhui on the Waitākere Ranges in an attempt to prevent the spread of kauri dieback, a disease that slowly kills the trees. The focus of the rāhui is protection rather than prohibition. The protection of kauri results in the health of the entire forest. Although there was pushback, the scientists working with the iwi were clear that the infection was spreading along tracks from humans. The iwi decided it couldn’t wait for Council to act; the one thing they can control is people, so they moved to keep them out and to give the forest a break while research and track upgrades are being done.

Being an Auckland based photographer, the Waitakere Ranges was my place to connect with nature and explore the trails with my running friends. The closures affected a wide range of people, including myself and it inspired me to research the disease further. I came to realise not only how many kauri had been affected but the impact it was having on people’s lives.

A couple of friends and I used to go night running at Cascades and we would stop at a kauri called Auntie Agatha and spend a couple of minutes looking in awe. I would think, if this tree had eyes, imagine the things it must have seen in its life.

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Time to stand up for Kauri

In June 2018, The Kauri Project, a charitable Trust responsible for community engagement on Kauri dieback through art and education, calls for the dieback disease management to be handed to an NGO because the Ministry for Primary industries is not taking the threat to Aotearoa’s unique kauri forests and the inherent biodiversity seriously enough.

At recent Environment Select Committee briefings in Auckland and Wellington, seven NGOs and four government and local government organisations gave evidence that the national kauri dieback programme is not working in its current form and the establishment of an independent trust, similar to that established for the Kiwifruit PSA response, is key to developing partnership programmes working with experts in science, mātauranga, iwi and community to implement a new and transparent response.

In its submission, The Kauri Project stated that: A new Trust would perform all management of dieback operations and planning, support research via western science and mātauranga methodology, manage educational and community engagement programmes and focus on empowering iwi, community, landowners etc to develop community solutions and behaviour change.

“It is imperative that this trust must be in full partnership with iwi from each of the kauri forest regions. We should be looking to implement a collaborative, partnership approach to a national issue,” said Chris McBride, Kauri Project curator and trustee. “Both MPI and DOC over the past 10 years have failed to engage with iwi other than to ‘tick the consultation’ box. Iwi must be a full partner to the decision-making process and implementation of processes addressing science and mātauranga research, closure of forests and walkways and the eventual reopening of fully upgraded tracks.”  It is possible that under a new management of kauri forests, some forests would be closed for protection and, in other forests many tracks would be retired while a small number would be upgraded for public access.

“MPI’s ‘consultation’ will not help us out of the dire position we are in where Kauri Dieback is ravaging our forests.  MPI has been the master of spin. Despite a litany of failures across the farming sector (Mycoplasma Bovis) and mismanagement of Myrtle Rust, Velvetleaf, Kiwifruit PSA, Bonamia Ostreae (oysters) and more, MPI has failed in addressing the serious rate of destruction caused by Kauri Dieback / Phytopthora agathidicida and this failure continues to exacerbate NGOs working in the field, including the Kauri Project” says McBride.